‘Black Archive #60: The Sun Makers’

The sixtieth Black Archive examines the foundations and influences of 1977’s The Sun Makers, writes Don Klees.

“Baston‘s exploration of the ideas and influences that shaped The Sun Makers provides a reminder that the ability to incorporate unlikely and seemingly disparate reference points is one of Doctor Who’s greatest strengths.”

Among the many virtues of Obverse Books’ Black Archive series is how it reminds readers that, while not necessarily wrong, the lore of Doctor Who is often incomplete. To the line’s credit, this is not simply a symptom of fannish oneupmanship but rather a desire to treat each entry in televised Doctor Who with respect. This drive is often most apparent in the volumes examining the series’ less regarded stories. 1977’s The Sun Makers, the subject of The Black Archive’s 60th installment by Lewis Baston, isn’t necessarily considered a bad story. However, its reputation as one of writer Robert Holmes’ weaker efforts seems quite secure, having placed in the bottom third of Doctor Who Magazine’s comprehensive surveys from both 2009 and 2014.

The most celebrated part of The Sun Makers’ lore is the aspect of Holmes expressing his frustration about a dispute with the UK’s Inland Revenue (now HM Revenue and Customs) about his tax bill for work as a freelance writer in the story’s script. This reading goes back at least as far as Jeremy Bentham’s 1983 episode guide in Doctor Who: A Celebration, an influential text but not the most insightful. The appeal of the legend is understandable. Beyond the auteurist implications of a writer – especially in a series as writer-driven as Doctor Who – injecting personal experience directly into a story, even those who recognize the importance of taxes in funding essential services tend to dislike them. Whatever the reason, the taxation element was one of many influences on the world depicted on-screen, and the fixation on this relatively late addition to the script does a disservice to the story itself.

As deserving of witty disparagement as the tax system may be, focusing on its role in The Sun Makers doesn’t just obscure more substantive aspects of the serial; it warps how it’s perceived overall. As Lewis Baston details in this Black Archive volume, the story’s satirical foundations are both historical and speculative, working in service of a darker narrative. Throughout the book, Baston examines not just the historical influences but also literary and other cultural reference points reflected in both the script and its translation onto the screen. He articulates how transplanting colonial oppression, especially the activities of the East India Company, into a science-fiction context – with ideas and iconography adapted from works such as Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World and Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis – produced a more cohesive whole than generally recognized.

“The full horror of private sector colonialism was, however, impossible to convey on children’s television, even in the 1970s,” notes Baston. “But The Sun Makers is still full of dark hints about the nature of the regime, and the commodification of human life under Company rule.” With so much of popular culture, especially in the realm of science-fiction and fantasy, driven by the assumption that grim and misanthropic is synonymous with adult and sophisticated, one of the book’s greatest virtues is making the case that mature themes can be presented substantively in more subtle ways.

At the same time, even when discussing relatively esoteric matters like the significance to Holmes’ script of science texts like Adrian Berry’s The Iron Sun and The Next Ten Thousand Years, the writer remains mindful of their sociopolitical implications. That’s also the case for his discussion of the Doctor’s involvement in sparking revolutions. The trope is perhaps more prevalent in viewers’ minds than actually on-screen in Doctor Who, but it nevertheless reflects real world historical and philosophical debates across the history of the series. This is particularly true in The Sun Makers, a story noteworthy for being identified as partisan from both right-wing and left-wing political perspectives. Though this could be interpreted as a sign that the serial’s politics – and those of its writer – are muddled, Baston interprets it as an indicator of thematic complexity.

In a section exploring the post-revolution implications of the Doctor’s activities and how different writers engage with them (or don’t), Baston outlines how much this particular story managed to convey in the context of a family-oriented adventure series. “The messages of The Sun Makers are that the world is bleak and exploitative, that violence is necessary to overcome a vicious regime, and that taxation is irksome. These ideas can only really be dealt with in an adult context, making The Sun Makers one of the most genuinely adult stories Doctor Who has ever done.”

Science-fiction has often been able to articulate thorny social questions with less objection due to the aesthetic distance inherent in the genre. During its 20th century run, Doctor Who’s format, which in many respects constituted a lack of format, enabled the series to take this a step further, raising such questions more openly, at least so long as it avoided overly graphic or intense violent content. Another element implicit in the genre is the connection between exploration and imperialism. With Doctor Who being a uniquely British series, when depicted on-screen, this frequently means the British empire, with the depictions of alien cultures often drawing recognizable parallels to historical matters of race and class. The moral dimension of the Doctor’s engagement with both often goes unexamined, but The Sun Makers and this book about it again stand as exceptions.

Baston likewise addresses the temptation to treat science-fiction stories, especially those grounded in real world issues, as a form of prophecy, wisely recognizing that the conditions of such narratives’ creation make any reflection akin to a funhouse mirror. More pertinently, his exploration of the ideas and influences that shaped The Sun Makers provides a reminder that the ability to incorporate unlikely and seemingly disparate reference points is one of Doctor Who’s greatest strengths. Being able to discuss those aspects substantively via works like this installment of The Black Archive is a decidedly undistorted reflection of that strength.

❉ ‘Black Archive #60: The Sun Makers’ by Lewis Baston  is available now in paperback and electronic formats, direct from Obverse Books, RRP £3.99 – £8.99. Buy Black Archive books from the Obverse Books website!

 Don Klees has spent many years in the video business. This continues to enrich his life in many ways, chief among them being able to tell people he watches television for a living. An avid consumer of pop – and sometimes not-so-popular – culture,  Don is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.

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